The Maldives have always seemed like a fantasy that would never come true. Until an unexpected change in plans landed us snorkeling in the mouth of an extinct volcano with turtles, sharks and dolphins in the cobalt and turquoise blue fantasia of lagoons and deep coral gardens under the sea. 

We were in Kerala, India with no plans to visit the Maldives, but had discussed the possibility at various points on our trip, considering it was so close. We were on our way to see Amma, the hugging Saint, when we realized she was going to be traveling when we had planned to visit her. So we changed our plans to arrive earlier to see her, and as a result, wound up with an extra week open. Hmmm…where to go, what to do? I guess you could say Amma was responsible for us landing in the Maldives. Talk about a divine hug!

We had researched hotels and flights earlier in our travels but were discouraged by a few things we read about the Maldives. Firstly, there is not a lot of information about budget, independent travel. It’s difficult to figure out which island to stay on and how to get there as there are over 200 islands to choose from. Most very small dots of sand hovering just above the surface. Most hotels are on a little island of their own in the atolls.

Most hotels charge around $100-250 USD for a speedboat from the airport, one-way, to get to your hotel, not to mention the cost if you prefer a sea plane. That was out of the question. It was sounding prohibitively expensive. Secondly a good portion of the tiny dots of sand are privately owned by exclusive, mega-high-end resorts that range in the $350-5,000 USD a night range. There were a lot of negative reviews about the low end resorts. We read everything from “the paint is peeling, the food was awful,” to “they charge $10 for a bottle of water!” Sounded horrendous to us. 

However it seems that on the islands where locals live, they are starting to build affordable guest houses and boutique hotels. So we decided to stay on the island of Maafushi. We also thought that it would get boring snorkeling the same reef for a week straight at the expensive resort islands, so we liked the idea of taking excursions out to different spots. So many island reefs, so little time. Staying at a more affordable hotel can give you the extra money to do that. Also at a guest house you can leave and eat at various restaurants so you are not held captive to the resort food that can get quite tiresome after awhile.

Luckily we happened to find a cheap flight on SpiceJet, last minute from Cochin and a decently priced hotel with some good reviews called Crystal Sands on Maafushi in the South Male atoll. Maafushi is not too far from the airport, with a local ferry that you could take to get to the island. It started to sound possible and affordable after all. The hotel also offers to pick you up directly from the airport on their speedboat. Cost depends on number of passengers. The people who work at Crystal Sands also made our trip fun. They were helpful and friendly. Not to mention fun to snorkel with.

As you land in Male you can see the small islands of the atolls sitting in cobalt blue water. Some are just little tufts of sand that fade out into turquoise water. Most of the islands have a lagoon of shallow water around it that leads out to a “house reef” – which is a dark, ring of coral around the island that quickly drops off into an underwater cliff descending into the deep. We found it easier to jump off a boat near the coral than to walk very far in knee deep, shallow water to get to the drop off as you would if you were staying at the resort. Another plus of our budget option!

We kept wondering how these strange reefs and land masses formed. My first thought was the currents, but we later found out that they are actually the edges of extinct volcanos. An atoll, which is a group of tiny islands that seem to form a circle around what used to be an extinct, volcanic crater. It makes a lot of sense after seeing how the coral drops off so deeply, like the edge of a mountainside under the sea. 

I am happy to say that the coral reefs were the most beautiful, colorful and healthy I have ever seen so far. Sadly we have seen many places in the world with dead coral. We have also seen many reefs destroyed by tourism with inexperienced snorkelers stepping all over the sensitive reefs and tour boats that drop their anchors right into it. But the Maldives seem to educate their people about marine life. Many of the locals told us that they learn about marine biology in school and some get into learning about tourism professionally. However we still see the stray snorkeller getting too close to the coral. It requires regulation on the part of the country and education on the part of the tour guides. But overall, the reefs were big, alive and thriving so far. 

As for our island – Maafushi, is where locals live and work. According to the Maldivians we met, the island had only started building small guest houses and boutique hotels about 5 years ago. There was a lot of construction on the island but it did not hinder our experience. We felt like we had possibly arrived at just the right moment. Our hotel was fresh, clean, modern and the staff were super kind, helpful and fun. They were also quite passionate about their jobs and about the sea life. They would get just as excited as we would when we spotted a turtle floating by.

Something that does not get publicized about the Maldives is that it is an almost 100 percent Muslim country, which means that women are mostly covered up, wearing black shawls over their hair and also swimming in the ocean completely covered. As for others travelers, at the airport I sat next to a young couple – the man dressed in modern, cut off shorts, shirt, fashionable sun glasses and wife in a full on black burka, giggling and snuggling with each other. It was quite a surreal experience for me. But Maldivian women can be seen just fully clothed with hair covered, even in the water. That being said you may want to wear clothing that is respectful to wander in such as having shoulders and knees covered a bit. A pareo or light shawl can help as well as a longer sun dress. 

On Maafushi you can hear the sunrise and sunset Muslim prayers broadcast over the island and some television stations show prayers and devotional music that are quite beautiful to hear. It is an experience that you would not get on one of the private, resort islands and we really enjoyed getting a taste of the local culture and hanging out with the Maldivians as well as international tourists. You can see the local mothers playing with their children in the park and on the surf. The only downside is that if you want to wear a bikini you need to go to the designated “bikini beach” to do so. 

This idea felt awkward to me in theory. It seemed like another hurdle for me to jump through prior to arrival. But when we arrived and checked out the beach, it began to feel appropriate in context. After all, it can feel awkward to wear next to nothing when the local ladies are fully covered, in all black, in 90 degree heat. Normally I “do as the Romans do” when I travel, but in that kind of heat, I think I would pass out completely. The Bikini Beach was a few steps away from our hotel, it was quite beautiful to swim and snorkel in and had a palm frond fence surrounding it, to give the ladies in bikini some privacy. It is okay to wear your bikini and swim suit on the excursions as well it seems.

During our week on the island, we spent most of our days out on the water, swimming freely with the magnificent coral and colorful tropical fish in our bathing suits. Our hotel organized daily tours to different reefs and areas close by, a new location everyday. Just what we desired.

Snorkeling at the local Biyadahoo reef, a private, resort island only a few minutes away was great. We saw tons of gorgeous coral, tropical fish, moray eels, an octopus and turtles. Afterwards they took us to a place called Crystal reef where we saw more of the above plus sharks! I never planned on swimming with sharks. Mark that unexpected one off the bucket list I guess. Truth be told I was frightened, but the Sharks seemed to care less about me. Didn’t stop my heart from racing though. 

They took us to a few coves where multiple pods of dolphins were happily swimming in the wild. One day we were able to jump off the boat and actually swim with them. I think I counted at least 25 small bottle nose and spinner Dolphins swimming in groups under our fins. Under the water you could hear them talking in their series of pops, squeaks and high pitch frequencies. Yet another experience I never thought I would ever have in my life.

Often we’ve seen “swim with Dolphins” exhibits at many places on our travels. But we refuse to give our money to these organizations that put them in small containers, force them to do cheesy circus tricks and ultimately lead to the Dolphins getting sick and unhappy. Especially after seeing the documentary “The Cove'” we will never spend money to support these establishments and strongly urge others not to either. However, swimming with dolphins in their natural, wild habitat is an incredible feeling that we were happy to have. No, they will not come up to your face where you can pet them like dogs, but you can actually see them, hear them and swim with them if you are fast enough! Good enough for me. I prefer knowing they are wild, free and happy, in the open ocean where they belong and can swim freely to their hearts content. A positively exciting and joyful experience.

On other days, they took us to visit sand bars at the part of the day trip where we were served lunch and could continue swimming and snorkeling. One day we parked on a private island and they made us a fresh fish BBQ. It was like being in the postcards you see. We couldn’t believe our eyes most days.

Many people have said that the Maldives may sink into the ocean completely with global warming and the rising sea levels. When we discussed it with the locals they didn’t seem to believe it to be true. But as our plane takes off, drifting over those very delicate craters of turquoise just barely peeking up above the surface, I think perhaps they were enormous volcanos that once spurted red lava into the sea. Although all traces of it are gone. Just a bit of soft, white sand remains and some of the most gorgeous coral reefs and sea life I have ever seen and maybe ever will see. We leave feeling the fragility of life, the earth, the people. How incredibly blessed, but incredibly vulnerable we all are.